The non-fiction work Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil has multiple themes; one of which is sexual identity and how it comes into play within the lives of the character and even, to an extent, how it effects Jim William’s in his trial proceedings. For students, the novel may introduces ideas and themes that are unfamiliar to them or that they are initially uncomfortable discussing as a class. Although by high school most of them are familiar with the terms “gay and straight", the idea of transgender, as embodied by The Lady Chablis, is an entirely new and at times off putting concept for students.
However, she is central to the novel’s theme of identity and her character is delightfully captured by John Berendt. In fact, she plays herself in the film version of the book and is just as over the top as he described her on paper. She is an unforgettable figure in the context of the story and in her own right, and so, it is essential that students not shy away from her chapters in the text because they don’t understand her.
It goes without saying that teaching this particular theme within the context of the novel may lead to some classroom discussions that are a bit removed from the normal comfort level in the classroom. I taught this novel many times to 12th grade students and would not recommend it for use in any grade lower than 12th grade. Additionally, because I taught in the private school field, I only needed to secure permission from the school administration in order to teach the novel. When you are introducing a book like this into your curriculum, it is always advisable to alert department heads, administrators, and the parents, that way, when the topic of homosexuality and transgender issue is broached in the classroom, they understand why it is being discussed.
Additionally, I did find that my students, for the most part, managed to reserve judgment and were able to have an open and honest and fair discussion about the rights of Jim Williams and Chablis’ rights, regardless of their sexual preference or orientation. What I did notice was that my students had lot of “technical" questions, especially when it came to the character of Chablis, and while I was capable of answering them, I felt that perhaps a more clinical answer would work best. To that end, I had the school nurse visit my class when I began to discuss the sections of the novel that dealt with transgender and homosexuality and she explained the differences and such, to my students. They felt extremely comfortable asking her questions. Then, together, she and I developed the power points that are available for download, so that I could reference them during the rest of the novel and whenever I taught the novel in the future.
There is no doubt that Berendt’s novel focuses on some “hot button" issues that may raise more than a few eyebrows in your classroom. However, there are ways to use this novel as an important teaching tool; especially when it comes to teaching tolerance. Use both downloadable power points, one on sexual identity and one on the Lady Chablis before her chapters arrive in the text or while you are assigning her chapters. Have a frank, open and honest discussion with your student and attempt to honestly answer their questions about this intriguing but also troubling character. These two lessons, if approached with an open mind by both teachers and students, will provide a great deal of insightful discussion and an outlet for some well developed writing assignments as well.